It's the game many Americans wanted to see: USA facing off with Russia on the ice for a gold medal in Sochi. And it's happening today at the Paralympic Games, where the U.S. is the defending champion in sled hockey.
In the sport many call "murder ball on ice," Russia had earlier defeated the U.S. in a preliminary round. But Saturday they're playing for gold. Despite intense interest from their fans, hockey teams from both the host country and the U.S. left Sochi without an Olympic medal last month.
Update at 1:45 p.m. ET: USA Wins Gold Medal
The U.S. defeated Russia 1-0, in a hard-fought match that was decided by a second-period goal. The Americans become the first team in Paralympic history to repeat as gold medalists. The bronze medal goes to Canada.
American Josh Sweeney scored the decisive goal on a breakaway. The Russians had chances to even it with two power plays, but they couldn't get the puck past a tough U.S. defense and goalie.
After the medal ceremony, all the players stayed on the ice, receiving a loud standing ovation that the audience sustained for several minutes at Shayba Arena. The teams posed for photos on the ice, as horns blared and the crowd chanted for the Russian team.
Our original post continues:
In what organizers say is a first for a Paralympic sport, today's game will be broadcast live on NBC at noon on the East Coast. You can also watch online at the U.S. Paralympics website (Update at 12:20 p.m.: we've embedded the video on this page so you can watch it live).
The U.S. sled hockey team roster includes several military veterans, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reported last week. The team's story was recently featured on PBS, in a documentary titled "Ice Warriors."
Here's how one member of the team, Joshua Sweeney, told his story on All Things Considered recently:
"I grew up playing hockey in Phoenix, Arizona. I started out roller hockey in junior high and then moved on to ice hockey in high school. Shortly after high school, I joined the Marine Corps and I was injured in 2009. And I had the privilege to go down to San Antonio, Texas for rehab. And while I was there, they had a local sled hockey team that was an all-veteran team and they invited me out to play. And as soon as I saw them on the ice and saw the way they were moving and just the freedom that they had, I knew that I was going to be playing hockey again."
Beyond the traditional rivalry, today's game has many compelling storylines. Among them is the outstanding play by two U.S. teenagers. Here are highlights from a preview at the Paralympics site:
"American goaltender Steve Cash has nearly been a brick wall at the last two Paralympics. Until Russia defeated the USA 2-1 in the preliminary round earlier this week, Cash had gone 313 minutes of Paralympic play without allowing a single goal. That is why they nickname him 'Money.'
"Two American youngsters – 15-year-old Brody Roybal and 16-year-old Declan Farmer – have unexpectedly played out of their minds thus far in Sochi on the USA's first line. They have played more than 67 and 71 minutes on the ice, respectively, with Farmer tied with Nikko Landeros to lead the team with five points (three goals, two assists).
"Vladimir Kamantcev has been one of the biggest surprises of the Sochi 2014 ice sledge hockey competition so far, playing 135 minutes in the net for Russia and recording a save percentage of 97.37. He has racked up 37 saves, allowing the puck pasts the posts just once, and Russia have won all three games he has played in."
Organizers also tells us, "Do not forget about the USA's power forward, Josh Pauls, and his superstitions. He has five good-luck charms during major tournaments, with his most famous being facing his Mr. Potatohead figure toward his opponents' locker room."
If you're new to sled hockey — or "sledge hockey," as it's known in much of the world, here's a quick primer, from the U.S. Paralympics site:
"Just as in ice hockey, sled hockey is played with six players (including a goalie) at a time. Players propel themselves on their sledge by use of spikes on the ends of two three-foot-long sticks, enabling a player to push himself as well as shoot and pass ambidextrously. Rinks and goals are regulation Olympic-size, and games consist of three 15-minute stop-time periods."
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